Zelia Nuttall on Old and New World Civilisations

Zelia Nuttall (1857-1933), a distinguished American archaeologist and ethnologist and expert on early Mexican culture, was a pioneer in suggesting that European contacts had helped shape Mesoamerican civilisation. She was a fascinating character, part Mexican on her mother’s side, who ended up with jobs at the Peabody Museum and in Mexico. She specialised in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts, making her name by publicising the Mixtec Codex (Codex Zouche-Nuttall). D. H. Lawrence modelled the character Mrs Norris upon her in The Plumed Serpent.

In books such as The Fundamental Principles of Old and New World Civilisations (1901) she showed remarkable parallels between Eastern Mediterranean culture in Phoenician times and that of pre-Columbian America. She thought that those great voyagers the Phoenicians were the most likely carriers of European traits to the Americas. She cited parallel features: the purple dye industry and weaving skills; the use of pearls and conch-shell trumpets; copper, silver and gold working and trading; the tetrarchial form of government; the concept of “Four Elements”; and the cyclical form of calendar. She pointed to American traditions that “strangers” of superior culture had brought such knowledge from distant parts. Predictably, Zelia tended to be dismissed as a woman with dotty ideas. But Grafton Elliot Smith took her seriously. W. H. R. Rivers also (later) emphasised the migrations of culture -bearers who exerted profound influence upon “uncultured” populations. However the diffusionist ideas of people like Nuttall, Rivers, Elliot Smith and W. J. Perry were to be overtaken in the 1930s by Malinowski and his functionalist paradigm ( which neglected history).

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